Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a groundbreaking attorney, a lifelong advocate for gender equality, and a civil servant who served as a justice on the Supreme Court for 27 years, died September 18, 2020 due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87 years old.
Her death marked the end of an era for a court indelibly shaped both by her liberal views and her commitment to judicial restraint. Known for both her unwavering beliefs and taste for compromise, Ginsburg's self-effacing ways and pop culture prowess expanded how the public thought not just of women in power, but the role of a Supreme Court judge.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 15, 1933. Her father, Nathan Bader, was born near Odessa, Ukraine, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He emigrated to the United States when he was 13. Her mother, Celia Amster Bader, was the daughter of recent Polish immigrants. Both of Ginsburg's parents were Jewish.
Ginsburg was originally named Joan, but her parents began calling her by her middle name, Ruth, in elementary school so she could avoid being confused with other students who shared her name. Ginsburg lost her older sister, Marilyn, who died at age six of meningitis.
Her mother deeply influenced her life. Ginsburg’s early memories include going to the library with her and bargain shopping so the family could save money for her education. Celia had been unable to attend college because her family opted to send her brother instead. As a result, she impressed the importance of education on her daughter. She died of cervical cancer the day before Ginsburg graduated from high school.
A high-achieving student, Ginsburg majored in government at Cornell University. As a student during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, she became increasingly interested in how she could affect change as an attorney. “The McCarthy era was a time when courageous lawyers were using their legal training in support of the right to think and speak freely,” she later recalled.
Ruth Bader married Martin David Ginsburg, whom she had met at Cornell, shortly after receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1954. She had her first child, Jane, in 1955. At the time, she worked at a Social Security office in Lawton, Oklahoma, near where her husband, who was in the U.S. Army, had been posted. She had been rated for a GS-5 job, but when she mentioned she was pregnant, she was given a GS-2 job as a typist. It was her first experience with on-the-job discrimination because of her gender. While working in the Social Security office, she also became aware of how hard it was for Native Americans to receive Social Security. Both forms of discrimination stuck with her and helped form the basis of her future career.
After her husband finished his Army service, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School. In a class of over 500, she was one of just nine women. At Harvard, she was mocked by professors for being a woman and even prevented from accessing library materials that were housed in a men’s-only room. In 1958, she transferred to Columbia University when her husband, who had graduated from Harvard Law School a year ahead of her, got a job at a New York law firm. Ginsburg tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School and received her J.D. in 1959.
But during the early 1960s, even an elite law degree was not enough to help a woman receive a job at a high-powered law firm. Ginsburg struggled to find employment. She also looked for jobs as a law clerk to a judge, but was turned down from a job with Judge Felix Frankfurter despite a strong recommendation because she was a woman and mother.
“I was not really surprised that Frankfurter wasn’t up to hiring a woman,” Ginsburg later recalled. Finally, she got a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. Afterward, she worked on the Columbia Project on International Procedure and worked in Sweden. Then she tried to get a job on the Columbia Law School faculty, but to no avail. Instead, she took a job on the faculty of Rutgers, where she was paid a lower salary than her male colleagues. She had her second child, James, in 1965.
Her time at Rutgers was to determine the course of her life. While teaching there, the New Jersey branch of the ACLU began referring cases that included gender discrimination to Ginsburg. “Well, sex discrimination was regarded as a woman’s job,” she later recalled, noting that her students prompted her to tackle the issue. She began to teach about gender discrimination and, in 1971, took on a seminal case on the topic. Ginsburg did not argue Reed v. Reed, a case that involved a man who was appointed his son’s executor because of a law that discriminated against women, before the United States Supreme Court. But she wrote the brief, and the ACLU won the case.
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Soon, Ginsburg had taken on a role at the newly founded ACLU Women’s Rights Project. In 1972, the same year she helped cofound the project, she became the first woman to be granted tenure at Columbia Law School.
Ginsburg chose her battles wisely, often using male plaintiffs to chip away at laws that discriminated against women. She had a strong ally in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided for equal protection by all U.S. laws for all U.S. citizens. Slowly but surely, she used the Equal Protection Clause to attack gender discrimination.
Among her victories were lawsuits that affirmed equality in governmental benefits for people who had served in the military (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973), surviving spouse benefits (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975), and jury service (Duren v. Missouri, 1979). Ultimately, Ginsburg argued over 300 gender discrimination cases and appeared before the Supreme Court in six.
In 1980, President Carter nominated Ginsburg to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 after being nominated by President Clinton. During her confirmation hearings, she notably declined to answer several questions that might at some point come before the Supreme Court, a move now dubbed “the Ginsburg precedent.”
As an Associate Justice, Ginsburg became the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Though she espoused liberal views, she was known for her judicial restraint. However, she did not shy away from forceful dissents when warranted, objecting to, among other issues, the Supreme Court’s rejection of Lily Ledbetter’s challenge of pay disparity and its decision in the Bush v. Gore lawsuit that decided the 2000 presidential election. She became known for wearing a “dissent collar,” a beaded jabot, when she dissented to the Supreme Court’s decisions.
She also delivered some of the Supreme Court’s most influential majority opinions, such as United States v. Virginia (1996), which forced the Virginia Military Institute to abandon a policy that excluded women from attending, and Olmstead v. L.C., a 1999 case that affirmed the rights of people with disabilities to live within community settings instead of being forced to live in institutions. She wrote nearly 200 opinions during her time on the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was also active outside of the Supreme Court. In 1997, she administered Vice President Al Gore’s oath of office to his second term, becoming the third woman to do so. She spoke regularly at colleges and universities, and published the best-selling book My Own Words in 2016. In her private time, she enjoyed opera and reading mysteries. She made fast friendships with some of her colleagues, including Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who was often her opponent inside the court.
Later in life, Ginsburg achieved a degree of pop culture recognition unusual for a Supreme Court judge, with books like 2015’s Notorious RBG, a 2018 biopic, On the Basis of Sex, and comedy send-ups by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon reinforcing her widespread fame.
In 1999, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer. Though she did not miss any bench time as she recovered from surgery and further treatment, she felt weak and began to work out with a trainer. That developed into a regular fitness routine that involved daily push-ups and planks. Despite later bouts with pancreatic cancer, an arterial stent, fractured ribs, and lung cancer, which caused her to miss bench sessions for the first time in her Supreme Court career, she continued working through the end of her life.
Ginsburg’s husband died of cancer in 2010. She is survived by her daughter, Jane C. Ginsburg, and her son, James Steven Ginsburg.
A reassessment of Ginsburg’s groundbreaking career—and a heated contest for her open seat on the Supreme Court—will undoubtedly follow her death. But how did Ginsburg herself want to be remembered?
“[As] someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability,” she told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon in 2015. “And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”